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Rabbi Shach, giant of fervently Orthodox Jewry, dies

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JERUSALEM, Nov. 4 (JTA) — “We won’t be seeing his likes again” is the kind of elegaic hyperbole one so often hears at funerals and reads in obituaries. Rarely is it a literal truth.

In the case of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who died early last Friday and was buried the same day in Bnei Brak — his age estimated at anywhere from 103 to 108 — the statement is indeed fact.

Shach’s uniqueness lay not in his learning or his saintliness. These were much admired in fervently Orthodox circles, but so are the learning and saintliness of other rabbis, living and dead.

Rather, Shach’s uniqueness lay in the authority he wielded.

A “late bloomer,” Shach wielded power from the mid-1970s, when he was already elderly, through the mid-1990s, when he gradually succumbed to physical infirmity and withdrew from active public life.

“His pronouncements and his talks when he was active would regularly capture the rapt attention of the entire Orthodox world,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America in New York. “The simple knowledge that our world hosts a person like him evokes a sense of great gratitude on our part, and also brings a feeling of great security to Jews. When they leave, it leaves us feeling not just that we miss them, but vulnerable. The merit of their greatness protects us all.”

Through most of history — save in rare epochs, such as the time of Maimonides — rabbinic authority has not been vested in one living sage but has been conferred, by unarticulated popular consent, on several rabbis simultaneously.

The fervently Orthodox world is likely to resume this practice of the past, observers in Israel say.

A return to the historical pattern already has been discernible in the fervently Orthodox world in recent years, after Shach became too ill to provide public and political leadership on a daily basis in the mid-1990s.

Since then, two major figures in the non-Chasidic or “Lithuanian” yeshiva world — Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman in Bnei Brak and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv in Jerusalem — effectively have shared the leadership.

In the United States, a number of younger yeshiva heads have risen to prominence, but none has assumed a position of overarching eminence.

Like Shach, Steinman is a dean at the large Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Eliashiv, a former judge on Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court, is considered the leading posek, or arbiter of Jewish law.

The Chasidic part of the fervently Orthodox world has always lived in this sort of multi-polar atmosphere, with each of its various rebbes ruling his own faithful and finding a modus vivendi for providing collective leadership.

Shach was fiercely dismissive of secular Israeli culture, deriding kibbutzniks as “breeders of rabbits and pigs” and saying the Labor Party wanted some new, artificial Torah to replace the real one. Yet many considered Shach close to the Israeli left on diplomatic issues, as he called Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “a blatant attempt to provoke the international community.”

In 1996, however, Shach surprised pundits when he declined to back Labor Party candidate Shimon Peres, effectively throwing decisive Orthodox support to the Likud Party challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his razor-thin victory.

Shach likewise rejected the tendency among some Chabad Chasidim to revere their rebbe as the Messiah, blasting it as “total heresy. Those who say so will burn in hell.”

Many have noted Shach’s vigorous refusal to compromise tradition for the sake of modernity. Despite this, his son Ephraim earned a doctorate in philosophy and joined the national religious camp, and two of his grandchildren are secular, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Shach also was memorable for the remarkable revolutions he wrought in Orthodox life and in Israel’s broader political life.

He was the longtime symbol and standard bearer of what a leading Israeli sociologist has called “the society of learners.”

Under his aegis, fervent Orthodoxy in Israel developed a life pattern — unprecedented in Jewish history — whereby young men spend years, and often their entire lifetimes, studying Talmud. They learn in kollels — yeshivas for married men — which grew exponentially during Shach’s leadership.

The salaries they draw are modest, supplemented by transfers from state and local coffers.

These students do not serve in the Israeli army or participate in the regular work force. Many live in penury as the heads of large families where the mother is the only breadwinner.

To an extent, this lifestyle, which was invested with ideological underpinnings during Shach’s era, has radiated from Israel to America and other countries where fervently Orthodox communities flourish. There too, though not to such a universal extent, many young men continue learning full time long even after marriage. This is even more true of the non-Chasidic community than of the Chasidic one.

On the broader political plane, Shach is considered one of the most powerful forces in the evolution of Israeli society.

His place in Israel’s political pantheon was achieved not only by his vigorous leadership of his own yeshiva world but by his leadership, during its formative period, of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas movement.

Shas, which left Shach’s wings in 1992 after a dispute over joining Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government, today has left its Ashkenazic patrons in the dust, becoming the third largest political force in the country.

As a member of the Agudat Yisrael Council of Sages in the 1970s and early ’80s, Shach was consistently outspoken in his support of the grievances being articulated — at first diffidently, later with increasing vehemence — by young Sephardic Orthodox scholars and communal leaders.

They felt they sidelined and discriminated against by Agudah’s Ashkenazic leadership. Despite their numbers in Agudah, they were not appointed to fill its Knesset seats. They were not helped or funded to set up separate yeshivas for Sephardic students — yet they were ignored or belittled in the old-style Lithuanian yeshivas, they claimed.

The result was the creation of Shas, which exploded onto the Israeli political scene with four Knesset seats in the 1984 general elections.

The titular leader of Shas was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a phenomenal scholar, brilliant speaker, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and the most revered religious leader that Sephardic Judaism has produced in centuries.

In the early 1980s, however, Yosef was a political neophyte. Shach had the experience, and the authority, to make Shas a reality.

It was Shach who gave his religious imprimatur to Shas, instructing all fervently Orthodox Sephardis to support the new party, thus ensuring its initial victories. It since has grown by leaps and bounds, and its Sephardic constituency is much broader than just the fervently Orthodox.

Shach fell out with the Shas leadership in 1990, when Shas’ political leader, Aryeh Deri, teamed with Labor’s Shimon Peres to bring down the Likud-Labor unity government in what became known in Israeli history as “the stinking maneuver.” The two were stunned when Shach refused to back the left-wing government they intended to set up.

Relations between Shach and Shas never entirely healed, and ended definitively with the 1992 elections, when Shach said Sephardic Jews were not yet ready for leadership roles and Yosef defied Shach’s wishes and brought Shas into the Rabin government.

After forming Shas, Shach led his own troops out of Agudah in 1988, creating a separate Lithuanian Ashkenazic party, Degel HaTorah. Four years later, Degel fused with Agudah in one parliamentary bloc — United Torah Judaism — but the former degree of unity has not been recaptured, and the Lithuanian and Chasidic communities remain wary and separate.

Especially since he ceased most activity in recent years, Shach had become more important to the fervently Orthodox world as an icon than in any practical sense, according to Samuel Heilman, author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” — though that hardly diminished his stature.

“More than him personally, there is this sense that is dominant in the” fervently Orthodox “community that the great leaders and men are no longer with us,” Heilman said. The attitude “is that the giants lived yesterday and we’re pigmeat today. The older one is, when he dies there’s a feeling that ‘woe is us, there are no greats to take his place.’ ”

(JTA Staff Writer Julie Wiener in New York contributed to this report.)

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